On Wednesday it was announced that gekiga auteur Takao Saito, creator of the longest-running ongoing manga series in the world, Golgo 13 (ゴルゴ13), had passed away on September 24 from pancreatic cancer, at the age of 84.
The news was delivered by both his production studio and by the editorial staff of publisher Sogakukan, whose Big Comic (ビッグコミック) series has included the ongoing Golgo 13 serial continuously since 1968.
In a tweet, Satao Production said [translated by DeepL]:
Takao Saito, gekiga artist, passed away from pancreatic cancer on 24 September 2021 at 10:42 a.m. He was 84 years old. In view of the situation of the new coronavirus infection, the funeral was held only by the family. We would like to express our deepest gratitude to all our readers and supporters, and to all those who have supported us in the past.
— さいとう・プロダクション (@saitoproduction) September 29, 2021
Sogakukan’s Big Comic said that, per his wishes, the series will go on:
Before anyone else, Mr. Saito devoted himself to the creation of a system for the division of labor in the production of comics. In the case of “Golgo 13”, a number of professionals were in charge of script coordination, drawing, etc., and Mr. Saito was in charge of the whole process.
Before his death, Mr. Saito expressed his wish that “Golgo 13” should continue without him…From now on, Saito Production, which inherited the will of Mr. Takao Saito, will be in charge of drawing, and in addition, the script staff and our Big Comic editorial department will work together to continue the serialization of “Golgo 13”.
Born November 3, 1936 in Wakayama Prefecture and raised in Osaka, Takao Saito’s debut comics work, Air Baron (1955) was produced while working as a barber. In 1959 Saito joined with Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Masahiko Matsumoto and others to produce work that deviated from the conventional manga being produced at the time. This ‘Gekiga Kobo’ proved influential but disbanded the following year and Saito formed his own studio – Saito Productions in 1960, which exists to this day. In October 1968 Saito’s most famous work Golgo 13 debuted in Shogakukan’s new monthly Big Comic magazine which began publication earlier that year.
Takao Saito resolutely never considered his work ‘manga’. Even as the word (manga literally meaning ‘whimsical pictures’) once typically associated with work historically produced for children became a widespread descriptor for the artform; instead insisting on the name ‘gekiga’ – meaning ‘dramatic pictures’, coined by friend Tatsumi. Saito constantly saw his work as part of the gekiga movement that he, Tatsumi, Yoshiharu Tsuge and others used to try and shift the horizons of what the Japanese comic form could be in the 1950s, ’60s and ‘70s. Most notably via the now-legendary Garo magazine.
In a fascinating 2015 Financial Times interview, Saito said:
“…we decided to call our work gekiga to show that it was about drama. [F]rom the very beginning I have never been a manga artist. What I produce is drama.”
His signature character Golgo 13 is relatively obscure to Western audiences. In fact, from the same Financial Times interview, Saito himself didn’t see how the character whose mannerisms and behaviour so heavily steeped in Japanese cultural traditions could appeal at all overseas:
“…I was against the idea of introducing Golgo to foreign countries. Just take as an example the timing of when he actually takes his shot. It evokes iaido [the martial art of drawing one’s sword and mimicking a deadly blow]. It is the same movement and the same shape. I love Japanese samurai stories and that is why, unconsciously, Golgo moves like a samurai. That is why I thought foreigners wouldn’t understand the story.”
Often casually compared to James Bond, Golgo 13 (aka Duke Togo, Tadashi Togo, and Togo Rodriguez) the character is quite a bit more abrasive than the literary or cinematic iterations of Ian Fleming‘s creation. A silent savant that gets the job done, in his debut story he is a mysterious assassin who, in the very first pages, beats a prostitute with little provocation. Something that would have caused quite a stir at the time of its first publication.
Only thirteen volumes of the series were translated to English between 2006 and 2008 by Viz however in Japan the series has amassed enough collections to fill a library section on its own. In July 2021 it achieved a Guinness World Record for most manga volumes published with the release of its 201st book. September saw the publication of tankōbon volume 202 of the series and the overall sales of the series are estimated to have passed 200 million.
Saito with Guinness World Record:
— ギネス世界記録 (@GWRJapan) July 8, 2021
Golgo 13 has been adapted into two live action films in 1973 and 1977, with the eponymous character being played by Ken Takakura and Sonny Chiba, respectively. The character has also seen adaptation to two animated features, an anime series, a number of videogames, and a radio drama – as well as made appearances in a plethora of Japanese commercials.
So influential has Saito’s work and creation been that, in 2013, for the 45th anniversary of the series the Big Comic special issue had fifty-one different artists doing their own take on the signature character – including the likes of Rumiko Takahashi, Shigeru Mizuki, and Junji Ito.
With the series having been continuously published since 1968 Saito has seldom taken time off – or considered retiring from the work. Only during the pandemic, in May 2020, did Saito’s studio briefly close until covid-secure measures could be implemented for the safety of Saito and his staff two months later.
The studio system that Saito used for producing Golgo 13 bears some resemblance to how one would imagine a film or television operation – a division of labor that has a group of people producing scripts and others finishing the art, but with Saito himself overseeing, drawing out the roughs, etc. In fact he indeed seemed to see himself as more of a director bringing the characters to life, based on his interviews. As such, the shift – as per his wishes – to keep the series running after his passing will likely see little practical change without Saito’s guiding force.
As a member of the esteemed troupe of gekiga pioneers and for his remarkably long 53-year run on his own creation, Golgo 13, Saito-sensei achieved much and will be missed by fans and connoisseurs alike. May he rest in peace.
For more interesting links check out:
- Ryan Holmberg‘s 2011 Comics Journal essay on Saito’s division of labor to produce the Golgo 13 gekiga series
- Naoki Urasawa‘s Manben interview with Saito: